Sometimes a movie can overcome a wearisome story by rallying its other strengths together. The Judge is such a movie. It rides on a story that many of us have already seen, but because it contains such high velocity performances by its two leading men, and because the two men skirt around the story’s booby traps, it seems less wearisome. No doubt, The Judge will not be winning awards — it will also not make my Best Movies of the Year list — but it achieves what it set out to do.
The two leading men are played by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. They’re a father and son team that finds themselves in a precarious environment: Scarring family history, and a mother who felt betrayed by her middle son have torn them apart over the years. They’re not on speaking terms.
Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) lives in Chicago. He is perhaps the city’s best criminal defence lawyer. His catchphrase is You Can’t Afford Me. That may be so. The best lawyers are often impossible to reach, which leaves the poor with mediocre ones who throw up on the sidewalk before walking into the courtroom. Hank’s marriage is over. His daughter (Emma Tremblay) is no older than 11. His house is a nest of postmodernism cradled in a valley; the windows stretch the full height of the walls. When confronted by an opposing attorney, he boasts that he has a Ferrari in the driveway and his wife has “the ass of a high school volleyballer”.
Joseph Palmer (Duvall) has been the stalwart judge of Carlinville, Indiana, for 40 odd years. He’s not the town’s best judge, but his longevity has won admiration and respect from the townsfolk. His wife has just died. Her funeral brings the family together. Hank flies in and expects the stay to be brief. Also in Carlinville are his two brothers, Glenn (Vincent D’Onofrio), the older boy who threw away a promising career in baseball after a devastating car crash, and Dale (Jeremy Strong), the youngest, whose mental disability is buffered by the 8mm video camera he carries around.
One of The Judge’s neat little tricks is its pacing, which many viewers and critics have ridiculed. But I think the pace works, especially when Hank returns to Carlinville, his childhood town. Most movies in this category dive straight into the family crisis without care or concern for the people involved. Or they open up the plot immediately and expect us to play catch up with the characters. The Judge takes its time. It introduces the three brothers and allows their relationship to flow around us. We get a sense of their past and present by the way they look at, talk to, and interact with each other. Hank hasn’t been home in years. His brothers miss him but express this emotion in vastly different ways.
And then the father enters the picture. Duvall has such screen presence and effortless skill that a mere glance of the eye in the wrong (or right) direction can speak for a thousand words. Just watch how Duvall and Downey Jr play off each other in scenes of intense scrutiny and ill will. It is like watching a play of estranged siblings, forced to share the same stage without a script. And we look on expecting to be entertained. Duvall and Downey Jr are so good that we automatically become part of their history, whatever it is.
And then the plot opens up, after we’ve started to get a feel for the characters. Joseph has been accused of a hit and run. Only he can’t remember if he did it or not, and the victim is an old case, presided over by Joseph himself under acrimonious conditions. So there’s motive. And there’s evidence of the victim’s blood on Joseph’s car. But there’s no concrete proof; no confession. Joseph maintains that his wife’s passing clouded his memory. Or it might have been the side effects of chemotherapy. He needs a good lawyer. His first choice throws up on the sidewalk and steps down. His last choice assumes the position for free (observe the way Hank cringes at the inadequacies of the inexperienced lawyer but refuses to admit that his father should hire him instead).
The Judge moves along, weaving in and out of family history, relating back to the current case. Dark secrets are revealed. Old wounds reopen. Hank’s opposition is Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a hard boiled attorney who is aggressive yet sympathetic. Joseph is, in technical terms, Carlinville’s hero, so the case must rightfully be approached with some sensitivity. Hank’s old flame, played by Vera Farmiga, also makes an appearance, but she’s more of a hindrance to the plot than a catalyst (a subplot involving her daughter could easily have been discarded). The core is solidified by Duvall and Downey Jr; The Judge is almost their film.
I could go on and on about the two of them, the subtleties in their performances, but to do so would be to undo the job of a critic. My job is to decide if a movie’s worth recommending based on what I say and sometimes on how many stars I give it. The Judge is not a fantastic movie, but it is elevated by its performances. See it, if you want to engross yourself in characterisation and family drama. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times said it’s “surprising how little we care about these characters”. Strange. I cared a lot.
Best Moment | Any scene that expounds the Palmer family dynamic.
Worst Moment | The contrived epilogue.